Monday, March 31, 2014

What do we do with God's unconditional love

Whenever we think of God’s love or speak about it, a common word that we would use is ‘unconditional’ to describe just how immensely different it is from our understanding of love as we know it.  While it is certainly not wrong, and unconditionally bears a certain divine specialness to it, we are often left with a holy ‘hot potato’ in our hands.  What do we do about it?  What is this supposed to do to me in the way that I live my life?  That God loves us unconditionally is certainly something wonderful to know, but little has been said or written about what I should do about it.  I am certain that if we realise what God wants us to do with this precious and unfathomable gift, we will live our lives differently.

Love given has to be returned.  Not as a command, not as a law, but as a response in love whose imperative originates from the depth of our very being.  Scripture puts it in the way of a command – that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, our minds and our strength.  But this ‘command’ is often misunderstood, as if to say that God is an insecure being who is so desperate and needy for a return of love.  It is a command simply because it is something that we know we have to do, failing which we know that we have been untrue to ourselves.  It's in our DNA to love - after all, we are made in God's image.

If love is only received and is not given lovingly back to the giver, one becomes a storer, a hoarder, or a self-indulgent person.  We only need to look at the way the three persons of the Holy Trinity love one another.  Keeping nothing to himself, each person upon having received the total and complete love from the other totally depletes and exhausts that love in returning it in love to the giver, and that exchange continues endlessly through time, giving existence to all that there is.  This is something that we need to try to imitate as much as possible in the generous way that we extend love to one another.

But knowing this still hasn’t taught me what to do with my being loved unconditionally by God until I have some understanding of how I am to love my God unconditionally too.  Until we begin to love God as unconditionally as we can, we will be merely taking God’s love for granted and live out lives largely unchanged and untransformed.

Our unconditional love of God has a lot to do with the way we worship him.  When we only choose to worship him in good times and to thank him when things go our way, our worship has a certain conditionality attached to it.  Some of us may be afflicted with what I would call the ‘feelings dis-ease’ when we pray, which causes our personal prayer life to depend on how we feel.  But if we really come to think about it, isn’t real love something that cannot be simply based on feelings?  If married couples only depend on their loving feelings to be loving, they wouldn’t be loving for very long.  Real and lasting love is a decision, which stands the tests of good times and bad, sickness and health.  It has to be something that stands apart from our feelings.  If we only worship God and pray when we ‘feel’ like it, we may be worshipping our feelings without realizing it.  But when love is a decision, our love becomes purified and we move ourselves and our egos out of the central point of focus and begin to put God where he should be.

One concrete way of loving God unconditionally is when we stay steadfast to loving God despite the trials and hardships that come our way in life.  If our faith only tells us to love God when life is smooth and all problems are settled, our love for God can easily be conditional without our realizing it.  But faith becomes active when despite our dark horizons and hardships in life, where we are faced with challenges of various kinds, we do not waver in our worship and praise of God. 

I am certain that we will worship better as a community if there are more people who are joyful witnesses of unconditional love, both of God and of one’s fellowman and woman.  To the extent that we can love another human being unconditionally is the extent that we become holy, as God is holy.  One problem is that we think these examples of holy loving come only from the lives of the saints, which the Church has canonized.  But if we think about it, there are a lot of real people, people who we may know and live with, who despite great challenges in life, continue to love God and not be bitter and angry with him.  When these people dare to lift their broken and lives in humble worship, aren’t they trying to return their love to God in an unconditional way too? 

If I am only going to love God and truly worship him when I have no more illness and when my life as a priest is as normal as it was before I was ill, my love for God would be conditional.  And my life would not be a testimony of love.  Yes, a total recovery may be a sign of God’s marvelous work in my life, but perhaps not as strong a sign as the ability for a person carrying a cross or two to continue to love God and be of good cheer.  Some people have asked me how I can remain so positive despite my physical sufferings.  Herein lies some insight to my answer.

When we look at the various crosses that we have in life this way, we can begin to really thank God for them, because these may be the very things that will help us to purify our love for God and to love him back unconditionally. 

What are the crosses that God has blessed you with?

Monday, March 24, 2014

What our prayer is, and what it isn't.

It is not uncommon for any priest to have this scenario unfold before him – a person comes up to him and tells him of a friend who has faith issues at the moment, and would like the priest to speak to this person so that his faith can be strengthened and restored.  Oftentimes, this low point in the faith life of the person is accompanied by the fact that he or she is at the same time facing some kind of other crisis in life – it could be a broken relationship, a loss of a steady job or a health issue of a serious nature.  The unspoken request is actually this – please make God real for this person, so that he or she doesn’t live anymore in the dark, and remove this crisis from him/her.

 While it is not an unreasonable request, and one which mirrors some of the deepest pleas made by the faithful in the Gospels by people coming up to Jesus, it poses some problems for almost all of us who are journeying on in faith.  For the majority of us, faith is something which stands apart from receiving special blessings and favours from God.  Sure, we know that God in his goodness wants to give us the best things in life (as far as seeing life from his perspective is concerned), but most of the time, we do not get what we ask for principally because we have our own agendas as top priorities.  So, instead of asking for fish, we are asking for snakes, and instead of bread, we may be asking for stones. 

Tying up faith closely with getting our favours granted reduces very much religion and faith to any commercial quid-pro-quo transaction.  Would that God show me his immense prowess, I will have very little to do with him.  The more he manifests his divine presence in my life, the more I will be convinced that I am right about worshipping him and dedicating my life to him.  While not entirely wrong it itself, the element of faith is something which is clearly lacking.  The atheist will say that unless one sees, one will not believe.  Faith requires that we believe without seeing, as Jesus himself said that blessed is he who doesn’t see and yet believes. 

Does this mean that we are often in a spiritual quandary?  If we are addicts to positive feelings in our spiritual lives, and only are confident in God’s love and existence if things are going our way, where are we when the good feelings end and it seems as if God has turned a deaf ear to our pleas?  Spiritual masters like St Ignatius of Loyola have a lot to teach us about spiritual consolations and spiritual desolations.  Some of us may be surprised to find out that how we decide on the direction of our prayer lives in times of consolation or desolation affects very much our inner disposition in these times.  For instance, if I am in a particular low mood and do not feel like dedicating my time to either prayer or reading the Scriptures, or any spiritual, and instead use my time to satisfy my own boredom by engaging in pointless chatter and aimless web-surfing, I am contributing very much to the down-spiral of my being with God.  But on the other had, I may be in that same low mood but my inner being reminds me that loving God is a decision and not something that should be affected by my positive or good feelings, and continue to spend time in contemplation and praise God, I become conscious of my being with God. 

It then becomes clear that our faith is never linear, and ever alive.  And God always wants us to purify our love for Him in the ways that we pray, and love our fellow man and woman.  One of the hardest purifications that anyone can be given is the ‘gift’ of not receiving any consolations or insights or positive feelings in prayer.  A case in point would be the love and dedication that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta experienced for the many years she did her work without ceasing.  We now know that she was in a spiritual darkness for a prolonged period, but that never stopped her from doing what she was doing.  What makes her faith both admirable and great is that she continued to love without having that assurance from God that makes such difficult work much easier.   In that darkness that she was in, God was allowing her to purify her love for him. 

Purification of this sort never feels good.  At the heart of it, when one is purified this way, God is in fact inviting the person to the prayer of helplessness.  No one likes to feel helpless.  Most of us like to be at the command control of life, get rid of helplessness, and then pray.  But for one who is given this kind of purification of silence and seeming emptiness, one is invited to stand before God with open arms and heart.  When one decides to pray in times like these, one loses oneself before God, and that becomes a very pure prayer of self-offering.

Scripture abounds with examples of people who came up to Jesus with varying degrees of helplessness.  Yesterday’s Gospel featured the helplessness of the Samaritan woman.  The crippled man who practically lived by the pool of Bethesda was helpless.  The widow of Nain represents those who were not able to help themselves in society.  So too was the man born blind.  Strange as it may seem, helplessness or the admission of our own human limits seems to be the way the Christian life works. 

Perhaps the insight to this is that this admission of our own limits and limitations is what makes prayer work in moments dark and silent.  It works because we are honest about our incapabilities.  It makes us aware of the limitations of our own powers.

Quick spiritual conversions may be wonderful to read about, and they may bolster our sometimes-wavering faith.  But it is often the long-term, dedicated life of a praying Christian who sticks to his relationship with God through a regular prayer pattern who prepares himself for any kinds of crises that could come his way.

Just as countries plan out defense stratagem or offence manoeuvres in peace times to ready themselves in times of emergency and social/political crises, and just as athletes train with dogged dedication outside of competition periods so that they are in top form during actual competition season, so too should the praying person prepare himself outside of crises situations in order to exercise his faith when these silent and seeming helpless moments occur in life.  Any honest pray-er will tell you that these moments are real. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Living fully in the present - it's not as simple as it seems

Spiritual practices and advocates of the discipline of meditation and contemplation share one main thing in common – they have as their aim to teach their disciples the great need to live fully in the present moment and also to show that most of life’s worries, pains and anxieties come from living either in the past or the future. 

We carry all sorts of baggage from our past, and joyful is the person who is able to, as the current song of the moment says, “Let it go”, especially to the particular stories of anger, hurt and resentment.  But there are so many who may be walking tall and straight in the physical realm, while deep inside them, they are limping and bent out of shape due to the heavy weight of a wounded past that for whatever reasons, is a great challenge to let go.  These walking-wounded may be in denial that they are carrying such burdens but deep inside each one of us, we know that there are things that we wish we could easily release so that we can really live liberated lives.  This is one of the sad things about those of us who constantly live in the past, even though those situations, which were the sources of our agony, may have happened several decades ago. 

Then there are those of us who find it so hard to find the present moment either fulfilling or giving us the kind of contentment that we think will satisfy us.  So we race ahead and plan for all sorts of contingencies, and while we are doing that, often miss the forest for the trees and forget to smell the roses.  Think of the father who is only too concerned with providing a great future of physical and material comfort for his family who works assiduously, perhaps even holding two jobs, and in the meantime, misses seeing and experiencing the joys of his family growing up around him.  I found myself in a similar challenge lately with my continued convalescence from the Stem Cell transplant that took place in July last year.  Some evidence of Graft-Versus-Host-Disease may have surfaced, and to put it in a nutshell, where I am at the present moment isn’t pretty.  At the dark moments of the day (usually at night), I find myself racing ahead to the day when my life gets back to some degree of normalcy, but at present, it seems to be such a long and dark tunnel toward any sign of full recovery.  When I catch myself with thoughts that concern too many ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’, the unhappiness that wells up inside of me comes only from one place – the unwillingness to live fully in the present moment. 

There’s just something that seems to be hardwired in our spiritual DNA to not be all that contented with the present.  It’s not altogether a bad thing.  Having positive thoughts about the future and having hope gives us a sense of purpose for our lives and sets our compass moving in the right general direction.  But when we are resentful and bitter about our present lot in life, and take this to the extreme, we can be the most painful people to work and live with because we refuse to be in touch with reality.  Even when things are going smoothly and life is beautiful, we can ruin the moment by hoping to either prolong or capture the moment for all its worth, something which we see Peter at Mount Tabor wanting to do when he asked if he should set up three tents for people who do not need tents.  It is indeed very sad when I see people in happy times and celebrations who cannot smile and be happy for the moment because they are not living in the present, but either the past or the future. 

This is why we need to practice contemplative prayer daily.  It reminds us to live (even though it may be difficult) as fully in the present as possible.  When things are going well, live in the present.  When things are dark and life is a struggle, live in the present.  Psychosomatic problems abound for people who have a hard time letting the past be things of the past.  It affects present relationships in so many ways.  Will we be able to be masters of living fully in the present?  Perhaps not in this our earthly lifetime.  That is why we are only practitioners of contemplation, and not masters of mindfulness.  I’ve been ‘practicing’ this for at least 18 years, for an hour each day, and still I find myself at times not living fully in the present.  The prayer of the present requires us to surrender our entire selves to God no matter what happens in our lives.  It takes faith and trust to do this, and it comes when a true and lasting relationship is built between the soul and God.

Something which renowned writer Nikos Kazantsakis wrote about the three kinds of prayers three souls pray bodes well with today’s reflection:

a)   I am a bow in your hands Lord, draw me, lest I rot.
b)   Do not overdraw me, Lord, lest I break.
c)   Overdraw me, Lord, who cares if I break.

I believe that we are at one of these stages at any one point in our lives, but blessed is the one who arrives daringly at the last stage.  He is indeed graced.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The deeper purpose and meaning of our Catholic Lenten practices

The grace-filled season of Lent is upon us, but not many Catholic Christians would readily agree that it is a grace-filled season.  Put any 10 Catholics in a room and ask them what Lent means (for them and the for the Church), and it is a real possibility that you will get 10 different answers.  Some may view it as a prolonged time of dreariness and dread, whilst others who have had some good catechesis see it as a time for us to ‘reset’ our spiritual clocks which may have gone out of sync in the past year.  One of the typical answers would be that Lent is a time to give up things one likes.  While not completely wrong in itself, just saying this without qualifying our answer leaves many with hardly any semblance of neither joy nor purpose in this communal observance.

As I continue to grow (and hopefully to also mature) in my spiritual aspirations, it is becoming clearer and clearer that one of the greatest challenges that faces anybody intent on living the authentic spiritual life is the self.  It comes in all forms and can even be easily justified by our sly human psyche. Lent and its observances tries to move us to recognize the various ways in which we have been listening and giving in to the self and the ego, while silencing that deeper spiritual core inside each one of us that calls us to make the choice for God and holiness.

Traditionally, the three areas which we are called to be more attentive to include prayer, penance (either in abstinence or fasting) and almsgiving (or other works of mercy).  While these are undoubtedly good in themselves, partly because the self is diminished in the carrying out of these practices, they have to allow us to move slowly but surely in another motivation – and that is to purify our love of God and of neighbour. 

If any of these practices are done without the purpose of growing in our love of God, we may well miss the point of our Lenten observances.  What is the point of our spiritual lives after all, but that we become true and authentic lovers of God.  God is love, and if we have not grown much in our love of God in our lives, dare we say that we are ready for heaven when our time on earth has come to an end? 

In prayer, we are in purposeful communion with God.  Yet, it is also a great challenge for many to do this on a regular basis.  Many may want the goodness of God and his blessings, but how many of us want the God of goodness?  When the major part of our prayer is centered on giving God a wish-list of our needs, we may have yet to be aware of how we may be lacking in our love of God for God’s sake.  If we are only physically present at the Eucharist but with our hearts and minds hardly present, our love of God may indeed be lacking.  In many of the parishes I have been serving, it has been a constant bugbear of mine to see many of the faithful leaving the gathering immediately after receiving Holy Communion, without waiting for the dismissal and final blessing.  I have tried asking them in the most non-judgmental way why they leave early, but have never really got an answer that centered on the fact that they do not love God enough.  Perhaps the truth is something that is so hard to admit.

In taking on penance during the season of Lent, we are practicing self-denial so that we can purify our love of God.  When we consciously forego something we love and indulge in most of the time, we need to passively remind ourselves that our love and appreciation of God has to surpass our love and appreciation of earthly pleasures and delight.  Each yearning and longing for what we physically forego should be translated into our yearning and longing for the God of love.  When we are not mindful of this, we can easily turn our Lenten penitential practices into mere physical acts, wearing our efforts like badges of honour. 

The love of God and neighbour is clear to see in acts of almsgiving.  The Church’s constant call for us to have the “preferential option for the poor” calls us to see in the poor the human face of God who became poor for our sakes.  Doing acts of mercy does something that opens parts of our hearts that may have been closed to the suffering Christ.  We re-appreciate the fact that Christ lived with a real human suffering so that our own human suffering can have a spiritual dimension and as such be a cause for our salvation and the salvation of others. 

This explains why we need Lent every year.  If the love between human lovers who see each other in the flesh needs purification and re-commitment on a regular basis, what more our love of God whom we cannot yet see?  The truth is that our lives are an amalgamation of a slew of difficulties and challenges, joys and moments of delight.  We need to take a few steps back and see them all against the backdrop of God and his goodness, which we can easily take for granted.   We don’t do this well enough, or often enough.  Lent helps us to do this.